The dragon lizard is a completely new species in the Smaug family.

Herpetologists have discovered a new ninth species of dragon lizard in the genus Smaug, previously confused with a species of similar appearance, S. barbertonensis.

the Smaug the genus is named after the deadly dragon in JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. With dense alligator-like armor, these small, actual dragon lizards look like recluses in rocky crevices, mostly confined to the mountaintops of southern Africa.

The researchers named the new species, a heavily plated dark brown lizard with pale yellow stripes, Swazicus, or the Swazi dragon lizard, in honor of the country of Eswatini, where most of the species’ range is found.

Up to 13 inches from muzzle to tip of tail, S. swazicus is an unusually large lizard for the region.

“In terms of volume and actual total recorded length, Smaug Swazicus may be the largest southern African lizard species described since the western giant plated lizard, Matobosaurus maltzahni, 82 years ago,” says Michael Bates, curator at the National Museum of South Africa in Bloemfontein.

While the species of Smaug genus, also known as girdled lizards, may have scaled-down versions of the shield-like scales and sword-like teeth of their fearsome namesake, they have mild dispositions, says Edward Stanley of the Florida Museum of Natural History from the University of Florida.

Species of the genus Smaug are particularly difficult to distinguish from each other. S. barbertonensis, from the left, S. swazicus and S.warreni display three distinct color patterns that some researchers originally attributed to variation in individual lizards. (Credit: Edward Stanley/Museum of Florida)

“These are just little reservoirs,” says Stanley, also director of the Florida Museum’s Digital Discovery and Dissemination Lab. “They hide in rock crevices and spend a lot of their energy and effort just being spiny and inedible, so they don’t have to fight.”

Stanley led a group of scientists who named the Smaug genus in 2011, and he was instrumental in the analysis of its species. “Smaug,” he explains, comes from the German word “smugan,” which means “to squeeze through a hole.” These lizards are also found near the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa, Afrikaans for “dragon mountains”.

Smaug dragon lizards are super friendly

While Africa has an enormous diversity of lizards, the girdled lizards are the only family exclusive to mainland Africa and, due to their crevice-dwelling lifestyle, often stick to specific habitats. As a result, Stanley says some Smaug species may require more stringent conservation strategies.

S. barbertonensis already had a relatively small range, but that’s obviously before it was split in half when S. swazicus was discovered,” he said. “So, although barbertonensis was of no concern previously, it now has a range of only about 200 square miles,” an area less than the size of Chicago.

A researcher holds the Swazi dragon lizard with both hands
S. swazicus lives in rocky crevices on the mountain tops of southern Africa. He looks like S. barbertonensis, another species of Smaug genus, but DNA analysis has shown that it is more closely related to S.warreni. (Credit: Edward Stanley)

Attached to rock-filled habitats at high elevations, dragon lizards could already be feeling the effects of global warming, Stanley says. Securing rock crevices to hide in could become difficult as dragon lizards crawl to higher elevations in search of lower temperatures.

“These creatures are brilliantly adapted to their environment. If nothing is done to protect them, we could lose 20 million years of evolution in 50 years,” he says. “The important thing is that you have to characterize and identify animals before they can be protected. You need to know what you have before you can make a plan to protect it.

But finding lizards in southern Africa can be daunting: Stanley and his fellow researchers have had to dodge everything from mambas to unexploded explosives. When the team members extended their search to well-shaded rocks on a military base, they were accused of being gold diggers, thieves and pet dealers.

The dragon lizard's bony plates are colored blue and run the length of the lizard's body
Stanley’s work at the Florida Museum emphasizes CT specimens to better understand their anatomy. CT scans capture the intricate patterns of bony plates known as osteoderms in dragon lizards. (Credit: Edward Stanley/Museum of Florida)

“We had to spend the whole morning explaining, ‘No, we’re not here for that, we’re really just here to try to find lizards on your military base,'” Stanley explains. “And actually, because the range was so sparsely populated, the lizards we found there were quite friendly.

“It was a weird experience to have spent so long looking for them and then walking into this kind of garden where they were running over your lap and jumping into your arms.”

Sorting lizards is like sorting candy

Stanley’s next confrontation with the new species was not deep in the South African escarpment. He says he recognized the species from his time at the American Museum of Natural History, where there was a jar of unidentified specimens from the early 1980s pet trade in the herpetology collection.

“That’s the good thing about museums, isn’t it? It’s not like these animals are sitting underground, never seen before. Often they just hide in plain sight,” he says.

To differentiate between similar-looking species, Stanley and Bates relied on traditional approaches based on physical characteristics, computed tomography and DNA analysis, a process he likened to sorting candies.

“Suppose you have different types of candy that you need to sort by type,” Stanley explains. “You start by visually sorting all your M&M’s into one pile and your Mike and Ike into another.”

Next comes the DNA analysis, i.e. the taste test.

“So you taste your candies, and you find that there’s a proportion of M&Ms that you’ve sorted that are actually Skittles, and then you notice that instead of an ‘M’, they actually have a little ‘S’ on them,” Stanley said. “Now you can pull them out and say, ‘Oh, I actually have three candies.'”

The new species of dragon lizard can be compared to the Skittles, says Stanley, similar in appearance to S. barbertonensis, but with slight genetic differences that show it is more closely related to another species of dragon lizard, S.warreni.

The analysis also allowed Stanley and Bates to analyze minor physical differences that other researchers originally attributed to individual variation and helped explain why Bates’ previous examination of museum specimens revealed three distinct color patterns in dragon lizards.

Stanley says he cannot rule out the possibility that other species in the group are waiting to be discovered.

“Even now, in this well-worked group in these highly populated countries of South Africa and Eswatini, which have had many herpetologists working for hundreds of years, there are still some interesting discoveries to be made,” he said.

“That’s the biggest part of the story for me is that there are awesome animals that aren’t described.”

The results appear in the journal PeerJ.

Source: University of Florida

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